• The Ascend Fund

Cost of Success – Political Fundraising as a Barrier to Equity

Women candidates running for office in recent years have made headlines for outraising men. In 2018, women running for Congress raised an average of $1,675,000 while men raised $1,537,000. [1] This relatively recent trend has contributed to the modern success of women candidates – who now hold 31% of state legislative seats and 26% of congressional seats. Given that the candidate who spends the most wins in more than 90% of congressional races, leveling the playing field is crucial to achieving a truly representative democracy. [2]

Historical Challenges

Until very recently women have long been at a disadvantage when it comes to fundraising. And even despite this recent progress, nine out of ten women still list fundraising as a key factor in their decision whether to run for office. [3] Many women lack confidence and believe that they don’t have the network or connections to successfully raise the funds they need to win, which is a major deterrent to running for office. In addition, women raise funds through smaller donations, so they need to work harder than men to raise comparable sums.

Roadblocks to women’s fundraising success are far-reaching and often structural, including lack of campaign finance regulation, conscious and unconscious bias, and incumbency advantage. These barriers can be particularly difficult to overcome for women of color and Republican women who lack access to traditional fundraising networks.

"Money is a huge barrier,” Gloria Steinem, renowned feminist and political activist, has said. “I’ve raised money for candidates who, if I’m raising money for them, probably are all the same on the issues. But if I’m raising money for a man running for the Senate, someone will give me $1,000; if it’s a woman, they’ll give me $200 or $300. Not consciously, but unconsciously.” [4]

Modern Successes

In 2018 and 2020, women significantly outraised men at the federal level and nearly closed the fundraising gap on the state level as well. Women have long been at a disadvantage when it comes to fundraising, lacking access to crucial networks and donors, and continued success will be crucial to ensuring that women achieve political parity.

In recent years, women have raised significantly more than men due to a variety of factors – including the wave of activism following the 2016 presidential election. In addition, women have become an increasingly powerful donor bloc and in turn give far more to women candidates.

Women have increasingly become a political force to be reckoned with – nearly doubling their political giving from 2012 to 2020. In 2012 women donors gave $460,202,465 to political candidates while in 2020 they gave $831,305,761, an increase of more than 80% over just eight years.

Women, however, are still underrepresented in the donor class overall and give less on average than men, especially at the mega-donor level. In 2020, women made up 45% of donors to political campaigns, but gave just 31% of the total campaign contributions. [5] Given that women give more to women candidates than men, women candidates are taking in smaller donations.

In 2018, only 20 of the top 100 campaign and/or Political Action Committee (PAC) donors were women. [6] Even the women who could be political mega-donors are not invited to the table or approached by candidates and PACs. [7] When women aren’t involved in the process of supporting candidates, the donor class is not representative of women’s interests, which affects who is elected and, eventually, what policies they implement.

Persistent Barriers

There are numerous barriers that hinder women’s political fundraising success. Women candidates have long struggled to reach large individual donors and access PAC funding. Structural reforms such as campaign finance reform could level the playing field, as well as cultural changes that alter donor and PAC behavior and encourage the funding of women and people of color.

PACs as a Barrier to Equity

PACs have long been a powerful player in campaigns and PAC dollars remain a key barrier to equity. The average winner of a congressional seat in 2020 raised 32% of their total campaign funds from PACs. [8] Men receive a disproportionate amount of funding from PACs, even as women-focused PACs like EMILY’s List, which supports pro-choice Democratic women, and E-PAC, which supports Republican women in primaries, become increasingly powerful. This is in large part due to the fact that PACs overinvest in incumbent candidates – a group that is overwhelmingly white and male.

This is especially relevant for Republican women, who receive far less support from women-focused PACs. [9] Despite the creation of new organizations like Rep. Elise Stefanik’s E-PAC investing in Republican women, Democratic giants like EMILY’s List and Elect Democratic Women, have much larger budgets to invest in Democratic women. EMILY’s List raised more than $80 million for the 2020 election cycle, compared to E-PAC which raised just over $1 million. [10]

As long as PACs continue to invest in candidates that they deem “safe investments” – who are usually incumbents, and therefore, overwhelmingly white and male – it will be difficult for women to have equal access to PAC funding. To counter this adverse effect, PACs can work with interest groups to build a more diverse field of candidates and expand the scope of their investments. In addition, more PACs specifically focused on women are needed to expand the pool of PAC funding available to women.

Women Raise More, But Take in Smaller Donations

In addition to lack of access to PAC funding, data shows that women raise fewer high dollar donations, relying instead on more small dollar gifts. In 2018, small dollar donations (contributions of less than $200) accounted for 18.7% of overall Democratic fundraising and 9% of Republican fundraising. Women candidates, however, received more of their funding from small dollar donations – with Democratic and Republican women relying on small dollar gifts for 20% and 17% of their funding respectively.

Having to raise more smaller donations forces candidates to spend additional time and resources fundraising, and less time on other crucial aspects of the campaign.

“We work twice as hard,” Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib has said about these challenges. “At some point that may change, but we have to work twice as hard.”

Uneven Fundraising Successes

Systemic Barriers to Funding for Women of Color

Women of color running for office have had even less equal access to funding—which is much more readily available to those who are white, wealthy, and well-connected.

In 2018, for example, white women candidates raised an average of more than $2 million, far more than any other race of women candidate, except the two Indigenous women who ran powerful campaigns in highly competitive districts. White candidates have traditionally had more access to wealthy networks of donors and generational wealth, and political party officials often recruit and support candidates that are traditionally thought of as “electable,” a group they define as largely white and wealthy, and male.

(Source: Center for Responsive Politics – Race, Gender, and Money in Politics: Campaign Finance and Federal Candidates in the 2018 Midterms)

Black women raised 55% less than white women and have far less access to large individual donors, who give disproportionally to white candidates. Black women raised an average of just $395,102 from large individual donors, compared to $1,101,820 for non-Black candidates. [11]

Given the outsized effect of fundraising on election results, electing Black, Indigenous, and women of color will require institutional donors to upend their traditional giving behavior and invest far more in women of color. Political parties must also do more to bolster the success of women of color by introducing them to donors, amplifying their candidacies, and supporting women of color when they get involved in primaries.

Systemic Barriers in Action: Cynthia Wallace

Cynthia Wallace ran for Congress in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District and garnered endorsements from key players such as EMILY’s List and then-candida